THE Yugoslav education system urgently needs foreign aid to stave off collapse this winter, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has warned.
Thirteen years of neglect under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic have left many schools overcrowded and without heating and basic equipment.
An investigation by UNICEF found that only 50 per cent of school buildings are connected to the mains water supply and at least half the boilers are due for replacement for safety reasons.
In many schools, classes are organised in two or three daily shifts and the number of pupils per room is often twice the number suggested by safety regulations. Teachers complain that the only resources they have are their voices and a blackboard.
Many children are unable even to get to school as the monthly sum needed for city transport in many areas exceeds the average salary.
UNICEF estimates that at least 50 per cent of all schoolchildren fall into at least one category of social risk. Many of the Roma or gypsy children or those from Kosovo are only semi-literate or have insufficient knowledge of Serbian.
A rise has also been reported in the number of children wrongly described as mildly "retarded" when the problm is either the low educational level of their parents or neglect.
Those children who genuinely do have special needs suffer the greatest deprivation. Their schools are in the worst state and there has been no specialised teacher training for nine years.
Many schools had been punished for daring to stand up to the old regime. Vrbouac, a village south of Belgrade, has been strongly opposed to Milosevic since 1992 and has frequently had its power and water supplies cut off. Parents have had to provide all the books and equipment. Now that the oil sanctions have been lifted, the school hopes an old school bus can be found.
UNICEF has launched a crisis appeal for essential repairs and maintenance to heating systems in 20 per cent of the 220 primary schools in the 16 worst-hit municipalities. It has created mobile teams to assess the situation and ensure efficient distribution of any assistance.
The agency is looking for up to pound;2 million for heating and pound;1.5m for essential medicines simply to get the schools through the winter.
"Often, it is only something minor that is preventing the heating from working," said Jadranka Milanovic of UNICEF, "but almost any repairs are beyond the schools' resources."